By Jim Schutze
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The flu season in Texas started out mild but came on like a tiger in late January, prompting the closings of several schools in the area. That's when Texas and Oklahoma went red on the influenza map posted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Grapevine resident Joe Lastinger, one of the founders of Families Fighting Flu, wants to ensure that parents understand the danger influenza poses to children and to tell them it's not too late to get their kids immunized. Maybe his message can help other parents avoid what happened to his daughter Emily, a healthy toddler who died after contracting influenza.
So far this flu season, four Texas children—ages 4, 10, 11 and 16—have died of complications caused by flu; nationwide the total for pediatric deaths stands at 13. Their deaths might have been prevented if the children had received flu shots. Families Fighting Flu is backing a bill filed in the Texas Legislature that would require schools to post information on the influenza vaccine.
Lastinger admits that he didn't understand how deadly the flu could be for children when Emily, age 3, was diagnosed with the virus in February 2004. Diagnosed on a Thursday, Emily died the next Monday. By the time the '03-'04 flu season ended, 153 children died in the United States.
"I had no idea 36,000 people die of flu every year," Lastinger says. Though he and his wife, who was pregnant, had gotten their yearly immunizations, the Lastingers hadn't taken their children for flu vaccinations.
His daughter, who had two brothers and attended preschool, had been completely healthy when she contracted flu. "We really don't know where she got it," Lastinger says. "She had very common presentation. She had high fever, was very tired and sleeping a lot, and threw up a little bit. She took a long nap on a Wednesday so we took her to the doctor the next day. They diagnosed her and said she'd be sick five to seven days and to watch for dehydration. Just common stuff. We had everybody take Tamiflu, to see if we could stop everybody else in the family from getting sick."
The Lastingers became worried on Sunday night; Emily slept little and kept throwing up. They made arrangements to bring her in to the doctor early Monday morning. But an hour before they left, Emily stopped breathing. Paramedics raced Emily to an emergency room, but doctors were unable to save her life.
"We were just shocked and devastated that this could happen," Lastinger says. "We just didn't think that the flu could be that bad for healthy kids."
In trying to figure out what happened, the Lastingers talked to infectious disease experts at the CDC. "We wondered if there was some vulnerability we didn't know about," Lastinger says. "All of it came back she was healthy, but sometimes healthy kids die of the flu." Flu weakens immune systems, and death is usually caused by a complication such as pneumonia. "It tears down all the defenses," Lastinger says. "The next thing that walks in, the body can't defend itself."
Families Fighting Flu wants the CDC to extend the recommendations for the vaccine to all children ages 6 months to 18 years old. If they had been following CDC guidelines at the time, Emily would not have been vaccinated against the flu. "None of my children were in the recommended category," he says.
At the time of Emily's death, the CDC was recommending flu vaccinations for people over age 65, others who were at high risk because of health conditions and children 6 to 23 months old.
"Since that time and due in part to some of our efforts," Lastinger says, "now they recommend that kids up to age 5 get vaccinated. That started last year."
Of the four children who died this flu season in Texas three weren't vaccinated, Lastinger says. The status of the other is unknown.
"But if the 10-, 11- and 16-year-olds were all healthy kids, they weren't covered by the existing recommendations," he says. "Only the 4-year-old would have been covered."
Many parents, even if they know their children should receive the vaccine, simply don't take it seriously.
"The CDC did a study and found out that even in the recommended categories, less than half the kids who should be getting vaccinated were getting it. It's so underutilized by parents. Parents have to be educated and understand why it's important and why they have to make that little bit of effort."
Lastinger points out that flu season is still in full swing. "This is a key educational point," Lastinger says. "There's a misperception that if I don't get vaccinated in October or November I've missed the boat. You can vaccinate all the way into January. Flu will start to taper off in March. The vaccine takes about two weeks to be fully effective but starts protecting you right away. Kids who receive it for the first time get two doses instead of one, separated by a week."
Lastinger believes flu shots for kids should be like seatbelts and bicycle helmets. "If there is lightning outside, we take our kids out of the pool even if it is a small, small chance of danger," Lastinger says. "But when it comes to something as serious as the flu, we don't do the single most important thing that can save their lives."